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Plagues, Pandemics, Paintings, and Personal Gain

After a lot of Trump Administration obfuscation, dillydallying, denial, sloppy planning, incompetence, inaction, and indecision about the spread and the combatting of the Coronavirus in the United States, and, after much criticism by Democrat politicians and the “liberal” media, the White House apprised the nation that at 9:00 p.m. EDT, March 11, 2020, President Donald Trump was going to address the nation.

Instead of what could-have/should-have been an affirmative “YES, we Do have a serious problem on our hands, and here is what we CAN/SHOULD do individually and collectively to combat the scourge that is threatening the nation and the world,” Donald Trump delivered one of his worst staff-prepared statements. Ten precious minutes dealt with his favorite theme, the economy and the travel ban, thus exhibiting a lack of compassion, empathy, and comprehension of basic epidemiological science.

No surprise there; Mike Pence and Donald Trump, two of the most regressive politicians, are plugged into the denial of empirical scientific truths, a kind of very cloistered medieval view of the world.

Trump views everything through the prism of dollars and cents. Instead of helping instill hope and confidence in a divided and frightened citizenry, his prepared speech, dispensed with a robotically canned indifference (a kind of dissonant, pro forma delivery), betrayed a lack of conviction. Recently appointed COVID-9 advisor son-in-law wet behind the ears Jared Kushner is said to have helped prepare the speech, a speech with Stephen Miller fingerprints all over it. This is the same Miller whose fetish for imprisoning children in cages is a sport he enjoys.

Much like former Fascist cartoonish characters before him, Trump is at his best when he is surrounded by adulating crowds cheering his entertaining, nonsensical, xenophobic diatribe-laced vituperative.

With no pauses or intonation and in a tickertape monotone delivery, Donald Trump’s 10-minute one-sentence speech highlighted the following:

Because of the economic policies that we have put into place over the last three years, we have the greatest economy anywhere in the world, by far.

Our banks and financial institutions are fully capitalized and incredibly strong. Our unemployment is at a historic low. This vast economic prosperity gives us flexibility, reserves, and resources to handle any threat that comes our way.

This is not a financial crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.

Surrounded by Pence, members of the scientific/CDC experts, and corporate executives, on March 13, 2020 Donald Trump (after brutal criticism of his earlier speech) delivered yet another canned speech on the White House lawn, a speech that yet again displayed a lack of congruity between pronouncements and convictions. The biggest fib of this speech was the imminent Google plan to help fight the dreaded pandemic.

During the Q & A session Trump was asked whether having been exposed to the virus during White House contacts with known virus-infected Brazilian delegation members (state dinner, photo ops, press conference) he would submit to a virus test. With typical Trump haughtiness he brushed the matter aside. Furthermore, even though Trump is an acknowledged germaphobia freak, he must have forgotten CDC guidelines and his own admonishment – namely, instead of a handshake, “thou shall only bump elbows.”

After Donald Trump shook hands with three corporate executives and after telling his audience that he had no plans to be tested, perhaps his way of proving his invincibility, two artworks came to mind. The first is Rembrandt’s acclaimed circa 1649 Hundred Guilder etching “Christ Healing the Sick,” and the second is Jacques-Louis David’s 1804 “Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa.”

Diametrically opposed in theme to David’s composition, Rembrandt’s etching is a monochrome artwork that sold for 100 guilders during the artist’s lifetime. Its dimensions are 15”x11”, and it depicts Christ in his element, performing what he did best – healing, feeding, and tending to the needs of the down and out.

Because of its theme and mastery of chiaroscuro (dark and light) for dramatic effect, some art critics consider this print to be the apotheosis of Rembrandt’s etchings.

Every time I view this masterpiece I am struck by Christ’s outstretched and welcoming arms, and I am always reminded of the scripture in which Jesus of Nazareth, the Palestinian Jewish Prophet par excellence, invites mankind thusly: “Come ye unto me as children.”

Utilizing the dark background to create a sharp contrast, in the foreground Rembrandt’s Christ is the focal point of the composition. While plagues, leprosy, and other contagious diseases were prevalent in biblical times, beginning in the 1400’s periodic outbreaks of plagues ravaged Europe. In the composition’s picture plane Jesus, the focal point of the work, is portrayed as a beneficent figure around whom clusters of humanity are reaching out to be blessed by his healing powers. While to the left more able-bodied people to assemble in reverent postures, the lame, the weak, and the crippled rejects of society prostrate themselves at Jesus’ feet to be blessed and healed. To highlight the desperate entreaties of what appears to be a pandemic of sickness and pestilence, Rembrandt’s brilliant puncturing of space to the right and his use of subtle, soft, and tantalizing lines highlight the receding space and its occupants so as to suggest the expansive human need for physical and spiritual healing.

What Jacques-Louis David’s many canvases depicting Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation, military exploits, and affectation were to the petty Corsican officer-turned-French-Emperor, casinos, golf courses, hotels, lying, braggadocio, apprentice amusement, porn stars, grabby hands, dollars and coiffed hair are to Donald Trump.

Much like his modern-day war-mongering U.S. and European counterparts, in 1798 Napoleon embarked on an adventure to claim Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and the Ottoman Empire pour La Mére France. The campaign lasted until 1801; it proved to be a military failure, primarily because of strong local resistance, and the British Royal Navy’s pursuit of the French navy in the eastern Mediterranean, a chase that pestered, destroyed, and captured French ships, cannons, and arms caches. To the north, the Ottoman rulers held on to the city of Akka (Ar. for Acre) and forced Napoleon to retreat.

Even though Napoleon’s dream of capturing and adding Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Constantinople to French dominions went up in smoke, the petty tyrant was able to bluff his way past these adventures to eventually declare himself Emperor. (See David’s massive propaganda 20.4 ft. x 32 ft. oil painting, “The Coronation of Napoleon”.)

Having previously subdued Egypt with brutal force, Napoleon’s march through Seena (Ar. for Sinai), El Arish, Ghazze (Ar. for Gaza), and Yafa (Ar. for Jaffa) was a pillage-as-you-go campaign. Napoleon’s grandiose plans of acquiring expansive real estate holdings in the Levant were stopped cold when his marauding army ran head-on into the fortified walls of the city of Akka. In addition to the tenacity of the Arab and Ottoman defenders, the breakout of a serious bubonic epidemic devastated the French army and forced Napoleon to make a 180 degree-turn land retreat along Palestine’s coastal plains.

A French chronicler of the time opined that the rampant and quick spread of the plague forced Napoleon to consider extreme measures:

On 23 April 1799, during the siege of Acre, Bonaparte suggested to Desgenettes, the expedition’s chief doctor, that the sick should be administered a fatal-level dose of opium – that is, mercy-killed. Desgenettes refused. On 27 May that same year, Napoleon made a second visit to the plague victims.

Spurned by his Akka defeat, Napoleon’s retreating army exacted a heavy, scorched-earth campaign on Palestine and her people, burning-down-to-the-ground entire villages and towns. And the human sacrifice was catastrophic; thousands of people were killed, and in Yafa some 4,500 Arab prisoners were summarily executed in an orgy of beheadings and shootings.

And isn’t this what the Israelis, with American and European support and blessings, are doing to modern-day Palestine and her destitute population?

And isn’t this what’s currently happening in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Even though his campaign in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria was a total military disaster, Jean-Louis David, Napoleon’s propagandist par excellence, utilized the January 1799 brutal capture of Jaffa and the simultaneous March 1799 outbreak of the bubonic plague to lionize Napoleon in what is perhaps one of the most outrages distortions of historical facts and political propaganda.

There is some conjecture that on March 11, 1799 Bonaparte visited his plague-inflicted soldiers in Yafa, a visit that spurred a legend that, in an attempt to comfort his soldiers, he touched some of them. If the narrative is true, one has to wonder whether Bonaparte’s egotistical nature convinced him that he possessed supernatural powers – such as our current leader’s claim that he is the chosen, anointed one.

French officials requested medical assistance from the priests of the Yafa Armenian monastery. We know that “the help of the priests … provided medicine that was able to cure some of the soldiers. Napoleon personally thanked the Armenian patriarch and gifted him with his own tent and sword.”

To turn this historical event into propaganda, Jean-Louis David’s 20.4 ft. x 32 ft. “Napoleon Visits the Stricken in Jaffa” elevates Napoleon’s visit to a highly exaggerated mythical visual narrative. The sheer enormity of the canvas was in line with the period’s penchant for gigantic visual dramas as witnessed in the countless massive Delacroix, Courbet, Ingres, and Gericault compositions that grace the expansive pavilion walls of the Louvre. These larger than life compositions are a testimony to the influence of 19th century Academic Art whose themes were primarily Orientalist and Romantic.

While the setting for Rembrandt’s composition depicts the misery of pestilence and its impact on the masses, the Christ figure serves as a powerful beacon of hope, healing, and humanity. Christ’s meek-like depiction exudes with a supernatural power that asserts an affirmation of hope. In like manner, David’s setting is of pestilence. While plague-afflicted soldiers, officers, local physicians, and others are depicted in the Yafa Armenian St. Nicholas monastery, Napoleon Bonaparte (with an exaggerated height increment) is also centrally positioned and is portrayed as a Greek Apollo, a kind of invincible, daring, and Roman imperator persona.

Employing the arches to create a receding plane in which a courtyard is flanked by the city walls of Yafa, David’s composition is nothing short of portraying Bonaparte not only as a general, but also as an inferred Christ-the healer figure. While the officer to Bonaparte’s left is holding a kerchief to his mouth and nose, Bonaparte is boldly reaching out and touching a plague-stricken soldier. This is a display of the highest arrogance.

And much like 19th century massive canvases, the composition is a busy scene of humans cast in an architectural setting of pestilence, smoke of wars and fires arising in the background, and a minaret from which a large French flag is displayed. I am reminded of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” an immense composition in which dead, dying, and holding-on-to life torsos are buffeted on a raft. In David’s composition a blind man attempts to reach Bonaparte; an Arab physician tends to his patient, while his assistant is sharpening a blade in anticipation of a surgical procedure; a man is handing out bread; a stretcher on which a corpse lies is taken out; and prostrate and immobile torsos are strewn across the foreground. The whole composition seems to depict the meeting of East and West in a plague-stricken event with Napoleon Bonaparte as the hero, the man of the moment, the savior, the healer.

Plagues and pandemics do not distinguish between rich or poor, nor do they adhere to national and geographical boundaries. Even though today’s health care is superior to anything the world has witnessed, we live in a shrinking, infinitely more interdependent world, a world in which pandemics travel rapidly by air, sea and on land.

Even though Napoleon’s dream of capturing and adding Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Constantinople to French dominions went up in smoke, the petty tyrant was able to bluff his way past these adventures to declare himself Emperor.

It is not a surprise that on September 18, 1804, the painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon. Talk about timing and propaganda; On May 18, 1804, Napoleon declared himself emperor. Six months later and on December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte first crowned himself, and then crowned Josephine in what was to have been a ceremony unlike any other witnessed in Notre Dame de Paris’ Gothic cathedral.

And on January 20, 2017, Donald Trump, ever the size-obsessed fixation addict (crowds, real estate, stock market, trade deals, to name but a few) ascended to the Imperial Presidency.

***

The latest news is that President Trump has tested negative for the Coronavirus, which is a very good thing for him and for the nation. During his announcement, he exhibited a bit of somberness – perhaps because the magnitude of the pandemic is finally sinking in. And like an adept propagandist, our sitting president choreographs his public appearances by using cabinet members, military personnel, scientists, soldiers, and Rush Limbaugh as props.

On Sunday, March 15, 2020, Donald Trump appeared at yet another press conference. This time, however, he quickly retreated into White House after making only a few remarks. After congratulating the Federal Reserve for cutting interest rates to zero, he stated “That’s a big step and I am very happy they did it. And you will not hear anything about me [me is always there], unless it’s about a month or two from now. …We’re all going to be great — we’re going to be so good.”

And on Monday morning the world woke up to clobbered international financial markets, with Dow Jones falling down by 2034 points.

It is my sincere hope that during these trying times President Donald Trump attempts, even in a minuscule fashion, to emulate Rembrandt’s Christ instead of David’s Napoleon Bonaparte.

Based on his record, I am not holding out any hope.

***

While Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, Palestine and Syria was a disaster, several positive things emerged. Egyptology became, and continues to be, a fascination; archeological wonders of ancient Egypt still captivate the world’s fancy; 19th-century surveyors, technicians, scientists, and engineers reveled in the study of an ancient and noble culture; botanical gardens sprouted in Cairo and Alexandria; scientific expeditions emerged; a French-Arabic dictionary was printed; an observatory was established; Museum of Antiquities was built; the Rosetta Stone was discovered and the young Champollion would single-handedly unlock the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics; libraries would be built; and, perhaps most significantly, the printing press made its debut in Egypt, the first printing press in the Arab World, a contribution that helped the Arab World emerge from the vestiges of the dark ages, and a pillar on which The Nahda (Arab Renaissance) emerged.

The 19th century sinister face of the Anglo-French invasion of the Arab world was the mass looting of Egyptian and Arab patrimony. Thousands of priceless artworks in every genre, manuscripts, medieval scientific manuscripts and instruments, and architectural ruins were carted off to British, French, German, Italian museums and piazzas.

No different from French and British 19th-century colonization of the Near East are today’s campaigns in Libya, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Chaos, ruin, hunger, masses of refugees, depleted uranium, and bombed-back-to-the-stone-age towns and cities are current American and European legacies in the Near East.

And the designs of the U.S., Europeans, and Israelis for hegemony and control of resources are no different from Napoleon’s designs, designs which were stopped in their tracks only because of the bubonic plague.

Will the COVID-9 change the behavior of today’s nations, their leaders, and Donald Trump, the leader of the mightiest nation on earth.

Only time will tell.

A just-released report (confirmed by Politico) claims that Donald Trump is trying to buy (for I billion dollars) exclusive rights to CureVac, a German Biotech company working on a COVID-9 vaccine. This suggests to me that Trump’s predatory nature is closer to Beelzebub’s character than to Christ’s.

More articles by:

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com

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